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Port Wine: Your Definitive Guide

What is Port?

Port is a fortified wine. In fact, it is the world’s most popular fortified wine.

Fortifying wine involves adding some additional alcohol during the fermenting process. This makes the wine sweeter with higher residual sugar levels and dried fruit flavours.

Because of this sweetness, the port is often served as a dessert wine. But it can be paired with entrees as well.

Some ports are aged in a variety of forms so their character entirely changes.

Where does Port come from?

Port comes from the Douro Valley of Portugal.

Other places may claim to make port wines, but real genuine port only comes from this area.

In fact, it is sometimes labeled “Porto” on the bottle. Porto is the city at the base of the Douro River where the first ships carrying port casks to England set sail in 1658. And it is port’s main shipping city to this day!

In 1756 the Douro Valley became the world’s first wine appellation when the Portuguese government officially set its geographical boundaries. (I know, you would think France was first, but no! Long live port!)


The terroir and climate of Douro Valley are incredibly diverse.

  • Baixo Corgo: to the west, has the highest rainfall, produces the highest yielding vines, creates light young ports
  • Cima Corgo: to the east, has a drier climate, contains the finest vineyards, creates concentrated and long-lasting wines
  • Douro Superior: along the border of Spain, has the hottest and driest climate of all, creates Vintage ports

Most soil comes from the river banks and is full of fine soil or slate-like rock.

But the altitude, wind exposure, sun exposure, and access to water all differ.

This allows innumerable combinations of yields to create complex and exciting port wines for us!

The Grapes

Since the port is only from one area of Portugal, there are only specific grape varieties that can be used to make it!

There are several varieties of these port grapes. (Around 30!) Each contributes a slightly different flavor to the wine.

White port is made from white grapes.

While Tawny and Ruby port are both made from red grapes.

Each bottle of port contains several different types of grape and may even be from several different vineyards!

White Grapes include Rabigat, Viosinho, Malvasia, Gouveio.

Tawny/Ruby Grapes:

  • Touriga Franca – raspberry, cinnamon, floral
  • Touriga Nacional – blueberry, vanilla, high in tannins
  • Tinto Roriz – resin flavors, aromatic and structured wines
  • Tinta Barroca – sweet, soft, and round
  • Tinto Cao – crisp acidity, velvety texture

What is the history of Port?

Douro’s first shipment of wine labeled Porto was recorded in 1678.

As you may have imagined if you’ve watched too much BBC (guilty as charged), the Great British Empire had a hand in its popularity.

You see, continuous wars with France during the 17th and 18th century essentially lead to a boycott of French wines like Bordeaux. With Claret off the table (literally) England needed something to take its place.

In taking their business elsewhere, the English discovered the Portuguese were happy to fill the gap with wines from Douro!

Because the bumpy voyage from Porto to England could cause the wines to spoil, the British often added a little brandy to the casks to fortify it. (See where I’m going here.)

By the time the wine reached England, it had a reputation for being sweet, high in sugar, high in alcohol, and richly flavored. This is the Port we have today.

How is Port made?

  1. Fall Harvest The port grapes grow throughout the hot, dry summer and are harvested in fall.
  1. Pressing The grapes are then pressed to extract the juice. While many vineyards now use mechanical pressers, some still use the traditional method: human feet!
  1. Fermenting The pressed grapes: skins, seeds, juice and all, are then allowed to ferment for around 7 days.
  1. Fortification Once the alcohol levels have reached roughly 7%, brandy or other alcohol is added to the young wine. This process is what makes the port a “fortified” wine. The brandy halts the fermentation process and retains those intense fruity flavors. It also increases the sugar content, which is why it’s often considered a dessert wine!
  1. Aging This young Port then ages in oak casks or steel vats for 4-18 months. After this point, the wines are shipped down the Douro river to the grand Port Houses in Porto and tasted.
  1. Combining and Next Steps There they are combined, based on taste, to create uniquely aromas and flavored wines. Some ports are bottled for sale. Other is bottled foraging. And still, others remain in casks for aging as well.

What does Port taste like?

Port is generally a sweeter wine. It has around 100 grams of sugar per liter.

But the flavors of port vary greatly depending on the type of grapes and length of aging!

Younger ports are more spicy, fruity and taste like berries.

Aged ports lose their berry flavors and gain a nutty, caramel quality.

  1. White port: Drier, Citrus
  2. Rosé port: Strawberries, Cranberries, Raspberries
  3. Tawny port: Caramel, Raspberry, Hazelnuts, Clove, Figs
  4. Ruby port: Blackberries, Raspberries, Chocolate, Cinnamon

Types of Port:

  • White
  • Rosé
  • Ruby
    • Reserve
    • Late Bottled Reserve
    • Vintage Crusted and Vintage Single Quinta
  • Tawny
    • Colheita
    • 10-40 Years

Article By Vinodelvida

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